Angelik Appleton is more likely to knit than use a computer when she’s in school.
Appleton, 8, is a third-grade student at Three Rivers Waldorf School, where there are no textbooks and no written tests. Appleton learns at her own pace, driving her own education, as is the Waldorf philosophy.
And she likes knitting — a regular class activity for Three Rivers students.
“I’m making a hedgehog,” she said.
Waldorf schools like Three Rivers in La Crosse focus on active lessons, depending less on technology, book work and other, more passive, instruction techniques. Curriculum, school schedule and teaching style all are intended to help students engage their five senses while learning.
“The big thing is that we really try to get away from the model of more high stakes testing,” school Administrator Justin McKnight said. “All that stuff is just not in the interest of crafting a nourishing, positive environment for the student.”
Three Rivers has an early childhood center and offers K-8 education. Students typically transfer to local public or private schools when they reach high school.
The school is one of more than 160 Waldorf institutions in North America and more than 900 worldwide.
Waldorf students start kindergarten at age 4 and don’t transition to first grade until age 6 or 7.
Literacy isn’t stressed as in other early childhood programs, but students learn through poetry and song.
“It’s not teaching the children to cram together sentences,” McKnight said. “We’re really establishing a broad base.”
When Three Rivers students transition to grade school, they stay with the same teacher until they leave.
Three Rivers teacher Amy Morse has had the same group of students since she started teaching at the Waldorf school, except for last year when her class combined with the next lower grade level. Now, she teaches fifth and sixth grade.
Still, the consistency helps Morse track the growth of her students.
“You get to see them year to year,” she said. “How their development happens.”
Students start the day with two hours of block learning, focused on a specific subject in a core learning area such as math or reading. Each subject or unit lasts for a few weeks, ending with a final project.
Instead of teaching from a textbook, students make their own books on a blank pamphlet of paper.
There are no letter grades — just an extensive written assessment from the teacher at the end of the year about each student’s performance.
All students also split time between language lessons and Waldorf’s “hand work” classes, where students work with natural fabrics such as wool, and learn to knit and sew.
Lessons combine creativity and productivity, hand work teacher Michelle Kennedy said. Students make clothing and pillowcases, and by eighth grade can opt to donate their work to people in need.
“The children love to make things,” Kennedy said. “They understand what it takes to make something.”
Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner founded the first Waldorf school in 1919. He believed people are made up of three parts, and his brand of education focuses on developing each: “Spirit, soul and body,” according to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.
Spirituality plays a role at Three Rivers, but McKnight is careful to distinguish Waldorf schools from private religious schools.
Steiner’s ideas serve as an educational model for teachers, but they aren’t taught in the classroom, McKnight said.
“We’re really trying to teach the children reverence for things,” McKnight said.